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David Carlson's Virtual World

Page 5 of 5

    Story and photos by David Carlson
© Copyright 1995 - All rights reserved
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9 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, 1995

It’s sunny and warmer, maybe 40 degrees. I know it’s above freezing because my nightly effort to make ice on the Mir’s windowsill failed. You can’t get a drink of anything in Russia with ice in it, so I make my own in a juice glass.
My breath steams in the cold morning as a Russian, Arcady Khotin, and I trudge three blocks to catch the bus. When we arrive at the stop, it’s just like one you’d see anywhere else in the world — a three-sided, rectangular, Plexiglas enclosure surrounding a metal bench on the sidewalk. And, unlike the old Russia, there’s a billboard. This one advertises toothpaste and includes a picture of a lovely young brunette woman smiling broadly. But it’s smeared with a few Cyrillic letters scrawled in black, the only graffiti I’ve seen in Russia.

"What does it say?"

Arcady chuckles. "It says she is good for blow job."

Kremlin at dawn
With the Kremlin as a backdrop, a Russian woman pushes water off the sidewalk in front of Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. By 4 p.m. in October, it’s getting dark in Moscow, and the sun does not rise until nearly 8 a.m.

We climb aboard, buying our bus tickets for 1,000 rubles apiece, about 25 cents. There are empty seats, but only the women are sitting. We stand, and I scope out the other passengers.

People are looking around, a few even talk among themselves.

I’d ridden a bus with my good friend Arcady during my previous visit. Nobody looked at anybody else, or even out the windows. Everybody just seemed to stare blankly — straight ahead and slightly downward. They weren’t smiling, but they weren’t frowning either. They were, well, expressionless.

My query then had led to a very striking story from my Russian companion.

"We Russians have few friends outside of our own families," he whispered. "It used to be too dangerous."

To illustrate, he told me about his own great grandparents and what happened to them in 1918. They both were doctors in Moscow. They’d lived in a nice apartment, perhaps the ultimate perk in Russia, and even had servants.

"One night at dinner," he related, "my great grandfather happened to comment that he thought Stalin was making a mistake about something or another."

The servant apparently overheard. The next day, soldiers took Arcady’s great grandfather away.

Not only was the man never seen or heard from again, the family never spoke of him again, Arcady confided. It was as if his great grandfather had never existed.

"It wasn’t unusual," he said. "You couldn’t have friends because nobody knew who the informers were."

"You know," he added, "I’ve lived in the same apartment on the same floor of the same building all my life. Three other families live there, too. I don’t know any of their names."

The bus, rolling along Novy Arbot, one of Moscow’s heavily traveled thoroughfares, slows to avoid a figure who looks like an apparition from the Soviet past: an old woman in plain, drab-colored dress. She’s sweeping the street with a handmade broom. Its handle is a sapling, not quite straight. Long bristles, curved and worn from use, are cinched to its base with some kind of natural-looking fiber. It’s a broom that would have done the Wicked Witch of the West proud.

Later in the day, I spot a story in The Moscow Times, one of two English-language newspapers published here. It’s about brooms. Seems a U.S. company came to Russia to manufacture Western-style brooms, but they couldn’t compete. The handmade ones, the traditional product of some outlying village, sell for 22 cents each.

Hmmm. A lesson in capitalism for the capitalists.

5:20 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, 1995

I struggle down the hall with my baggage. Through a bizarre combination of bad English and even worse Russian, the Key Lady and I manage to understand one another. She looks up and smiles an actual, friendly smile as I hand her the key.

She realizes I’m checking out, and I figure I should give her a tip for all those times she got my key out of her drawer. That’s why she’s smiling. I hand her a 50,000 ruble bill, about $11, and she thanks me genuinely. Then, she mutters something about my luggage.

Based on my last trip to Russia, when a different hotel had robbed me at every opportunity, I figure it’s going to cost me money to remove my bags.

The Hotel Cosmos was a comedy of rip-offs, if such a thing can be a comedy. They nailed me for about $70 in currency-exchange charges before I checked in. They made me convert travelers checks to rubles and then said I had to pay in dollars, forcing me to convert again! After that, they charged me $5 to look at my passport. There were no bellmen, but it cost me $10 to carry my own baggage.

So, I’m ready. The Key Lady scribbles something on a slip of paper, and I reach for my wallet. "Nyet. Nyet," she laughs. "Give guard," and hands me the paper, which I assume says I left the floor with three bags she saw me bring from my room.

The lobby, when I arrive, is absent of all but ambient light, but I can hear something stir on a couch to my left. A young, blonde soldier, somewhat embarrassed and disheveled, hurries over, blinking sleep from his eyes. He takes the slip of paper, examines it by flashlight and lets me pass.

A driver meets me in the cold, cloudy night.

I ride shotgun. He doesn’t speak English, making the airport ride a solitary one. I’m heading home after six days in Moscow and it’s my first chance to really think about it.

Much has changed, but there’s much left to change.

To me, the biggest difference is the shops. They have goods to sell. The trappings of capitalism are evident. But there’s something else, something less obvious but far, far more important.

Call it optimism. I think more Russians believe there’s a chance for success — for their country and for themselves. What I perceived 15 months ago as general cynicism about everything, sort of like a Cub fan’s view of baseball in September, seems to have been replaced by a glimmer of hope. For some, the glimmer is faint, but for others, it burns brightly.

This trip, I’ve tried to ask everyone I’ve become friendly with how things are in the new Russia — how they feel about things. With but one exception, they say it’s getting better, but then they complain about the dawdling speed of change. Each is surprised when I say how drastic, how rapid, the changes seem to me.

One brief conversation seems to sum everything up.

It’s the previous night. We’re at a fancy reception with caviar and an open bar. Everyone knows the Russian reputation for alcohol: It disappears rapidly. But this night, they aren’t drinking, at least not much.

I’m chatting with a Russian fellow I met on my last trip. We’d been at a similar reception last time, and the booze flowed freely. So, I ask my persistent question about how things are going in the new Russia, but before he can answer, I comment that I’m surprised people aren’t drinking more of the free vodka.

"Well," he said with a knowing smile, "when one has something to do besides drink, I think he will do it." Then, he shrugged.

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